Sunday, May 22, 2011

Understanding Auteurs: Hayao Miyazaki (The Castle of Cagliostro)

Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki has a reputation as one of the finest filmmakers working today.  Miyazaki’s creative leadership of Studio Ghibli, the animation studio that he co-founded with director Isao Takahata and producer Toshio Suzuki, has led many to dub Miyazaki as the “Japanese Walt Disney.”  But whatever whimsy and sentimentality crop up in Miyazaki’s work is offset by a deeply weird, surrealist sensibility that doesn’t lend itself easily to toy deals or happy meal promotional tie-ins.  Miyazaki doesn’t shy away from using populist humor or cute, family friendly creatures in his movies, but his is clearly a deeply personal, singular sensibility, and he isn’t afraid to challenge, frighten or even confound his audience.

I was certainly baffled both times I saw Spirited Away (2001) on DVD and the one time I caught Howl’s Moving Castle (2004) in a now-defunct West Bend movie theatre.  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – great works of art are always inherently difficult to process on some level, and the avant-garde at its best is able to tap into some fundamental yet hard-to-describe truths on a level that traditional, straightforward works can’t approach.  And although I would have a hard time giving a plot synopsis or even giving any sort of coherent thematic analysis of Spirited Away (and not just because I haven’t seen it in a few years), I still found it so ravishingly beautiful that I wouldn’t hesitate to call it one of the finest animated films I’ve ever seen, and perhaps one of the best films of the past decade.  But I’m of two minds about Howl’s Moving Castle, which I found stunning visually but couldn’t connect with on any other level. 

My experience with Howl’s Moving Castle discouraged me from exploring the rest of Miyazaki’s oeuvre.  Whatever curiosity I’ve had about his work has always been offset by a fear that I would be completely perplexed by his oddball vision.  It’s not that I have an aversion to oddity in art – I would actually go as far as to say that strangeness is a prerequisite for greatness, and most of my favorite filmmakers (Fritz Lang, Stanley Kubrick, Orson Welles, Werner Herzog, etc.) made highly idiosyncratic works that are difficult to categorize and that can’t be fully unpacked even after many viewings.  I could blame my failure to connect with Howl’s Moving Castle on a bias against children’s films, since it’s true that I’m rarely the first in line to see anything that appears to be aimed at anyone under the age of ten, but I would have to ignore the fact some recent computer animated work by Pixar and some hand-drawn films by Sylvain Chomet and Michel Ocelot are among the most enchanting things I’ve seen in the past decade.  (Besides, even a novice like me can see that Miyazaki’s films are not necessarily aimed at children - or at least not just at children).  And while it’s true that I don’t have a very firm grasp of the history of anime, or its stylistic conventions – aside from genre landmarks like Akira (1988) and Grave of the Fireflies (1988), I really haven’t seen much – that can’t be the reason that I’ve been so thrown off by Miyazaki’s style, since he is clearly following his own muse rather than adhering to an inscrutable foreign tradition. 

I have to admit that the reason that I’ve remained ignorant of the work of Miyazaki for so long is probably simply that I’m afraid that I won’t “get it,” and I hate to be that guy who is so thrown off by a work of art that I can’t properly appreciate or evaluate it.  Miyazaki’s work is very difficult to compartmentalize, both because he shifts so quickly between different tones and because it’s hard (for me) to identify when he’s playing off of certain Japanese cultural tropes and when he’s simply making stuff up.  The English voiceovers added to the Disney-distributed editions Miyazaki’s films are also an obstacle to my enjoyment; while they nicely free up my eyes to pay closer attention to the astonishing visuals rather than subtitles, they also tend to feature distracting (and frankly pointless) appearances by celebrity actors rather than trained voice performers.  Miyazaki’s deal with Disney prevents them from drastically altering his films (part of the reason that Studio Ghibli was founded in the mid-80s was so that Miyazaki could retain creative control over the international versions of his films), but I do wonder if, for example, Billy Crystal’s goofy vaudeville-style voiceover as one of the comic relief characters in Howl’s Moving Castle may have given his scenes a tone that Miyazaki did not intend.  The DVDs helpfully include the option to view the film’s with either subtitles or the English dubs, but it’s hard to decide which version is preferable, especially as I imagine it may vary from film to film.

Thankfully, few of these concerns apply to Miyazaki’s first feature length film (he’d previously worked on several anime television series), The Castle of Cagliostro (1979), which is about as easy an introduction to the work of a filmmaker that I can imagine.  A narratively streamlined adventure film with a breathless pace, a goofy sense of humor, and iconic, easy-to-grasp characters, Cagliostro is presumably the furthest from the avant-garde that Miyazaki will be in his career as a filmmaker.  But even when making a crowd-pleasing blockbuster in what appears to be a sort of “house style,” Miyazaki brings enough personality to the proceedings to set his film apart from the pack.  Cagliostro isn’t an original Miyazaki creation – he and co-screenwriter Haruya Yamazaki were tasked with making the second film in the Lupin the III series, spun-off from a popular television series that was based on a manga series created by Monkey Punch (who based his creation on a series of French adventure novels by Maurice Leblanc) – but the film doesn’t bend under the weight of his complicated creative lineage, and it’s an easy-to-follow and engaging story that doesn’t require any prior knowledge of its source material.

Lupin the III is a master thief with a carefree attitude and a playful spirit.  He works alongside a sarcastic, laidback marksman named Daisuke Jigen and a focused master samurai named Goemon.  In the midst of apparently randomly cruising around Europe looking for adventure, Lupin and Jigen get in the middle of a wild car chase involving a mysterious woman and a band of thugs tailing her.  Despite knowing nothing about the situation, Lupin decides to rescue the woman, who promptly disappears but leaves him a distinctive and mysterious ring.  Lupin eventually comes to learn that the woman, Clarisse, is the princess of Cagliostro and is soon to be married to a villainous Count, who needs Clarisse’s ring to perform a ritual that will allow him to uncover the fabled Cagliostro treasure, which will add to the fortune that he’s made from his counterfeit bill empire.  In order to enter the Count’s heavily guarded castle, Lupin tips off his longtime rival, easily-agitated Interpol agent Zenigata, to his whereabouts, using the subsequent distraction to sneak his way past the Count’s guards and remote-controlled lasers.  Gradually Lupin and Zenigata are forced to join forces to rescue the princess and bring down the Count’s illegal operation, though complications arise when Lupin’s rival thief (and sometime lover) Fujiko turns out to already be attempting to swipe the counterfeit cash.

The characters are all fairly basic archetypes; even if the viewer isn’t familiar with the long-running Lupin series (as I wasn’t), they will be able to quickly identify each character’s basic function within the series’ universe, and there aren’t any unexpected twists in their personalities along the way.  There is no hint of moral ambiguity in the Count, and Clarisse is about as complicated as Princess Peach from the Super Mario Bros. video games.  Also, a few of the supporting characters have practically nothing to do in Cagliostro, and seem to only have been included in the script because fans of the series would expect them to show up at some point (samurai Goemon, who appears maybe five times in the whole film and does nothing of note, feels particularly shoehorned in).

These very simple characterizations may prevent Cagliostro from being a particularly sophisticated or original film, but the basic plotting allows the film to focus its full attention on its wonderful visuals and its many dazzling action scenes.  The film opens in the chaotic aftermath of a bank heist, and quickly establishes its tone when Lupin and Jigen decide to throw the cash out the window (it engulfs a bunch of passing cars, but magically doesn’t seem to cause any accidents), apparently more concerned with the excitement of the heist itself than any potential profits.  Miyazaki moves at the same jazzy pace as his heroes, flitting quickly between thrilling sequences like the aforementioned car chase, Lupin’s underwater stealth entrance into the castle, an out-of-control helicopter versus turret skirmish, and an awesome one-on-one battle in and out of a huge clock tower.  The animation team brings a real sense of dynamic momentum to these action scenes, and Miyazaki oversees a lot of vividly eccentric details, such as when a flash grenade tossed by Lupin causes one scene to play out on an entirely yellow background, with the characters appearing as black silhouettes.  There may not be a real sense of stakes in the by-the-numbers story – when one of the heroes is shot down in a helicopter, there’s no question of whether he’s going to get back up again – but Miyazaki’s incredibly visceral action scenes make Cagliostro even more exciting than the best James Bond or Indiana Jones adventures, and he gives the Count a surprisingly brutal death scene.  Even the scenes of comic relief or exposition have a sense of fun to them that is largely missing from contemporary action blockbusters.  The Castle of Cagliostro may not be complex or unique enough to mark reveal Hayao Miyazaki as a genius, but it is too damned entertaining for anyone to deny him his place as one of the world’s premier action directors.

UP NEXT  Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind

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